The Quran is the last of the divine revelations of Allah subhaanahu wa ta’ala (abbreviated hereafter as SWT). Allah SWT has promised to protect the Quran from any distortion or loss. Allah SWT said in the Quran:
إِنّا نَحنُ نَزَّلنَا الذِّكرَ وَإِنّا لَهُ لَحافِظونَ
“Verily, We have revealed the Reminder [Quran] and verily We will preserve it.” Quran 15:9
The Quran is not only preserved in its written form, but its various recited forms have also been preserved meticulously. The same cannot be said about any other religious book on the face of this earth. Allah’s protection of the Quran does not end here; He also protected the original meaning of the words so that the book is not left to be interpreted loosely that could lead to the loss of the intended meaning. The sahaabah (companions of the Prophet ﷺ) were taught to approach the interpretation of the Quran first using the Quran itself, then the sunnah (application of the Prophet and his explanations) and then from their understanding of the arabic language. The generation of Muslims after the passing of the Prophet ﷺ used a similar approach of first understanding the Quran from the Quran itself, then they depended on the most learned ones among them i.e. the sahaabah who explained the meanings of the Quran to them. The generation of Muslims that came after the sahaabah relied upon the taabi’oon (direct students of the sahaabah) who would explain the original meanings of the verses of the Quran. The generation after the taabi’oon was the generation that saw a need and began the process of collecting and recording the different narrations of Tafseer from the taabi’oon. Finally, the scholars who followed after this generation also followed the methodology discussed above. Based on the approaches of all the previous generations, these steps in the study of Tafseer were determined to be necessary conditions by all later scholars, for making a correct Tafseer of the Qur’an. In this paper, we will discuss the five different approaches to interpret the Quran.
1. Tafseer of the Quran by Quran
In this method, Quranic verses are understood and explained using the other verses in the Quran. There are relations between ayaat that are from the same surah or sometimes from different surahs. These ayaat contribute towards explaining a larger concept in the Quran.1 There are many ayaat in the Quran where Allah SWT asks a question to arouse the curiosity of the reader and then subsequently answers the questions in the following ayaat to amplify the impact of the verses on the reader. This type of explanation of verses in the Quran is called Tafseer of Quran by Quran. We will look at a few examples below to understand this concept better.
Example 1: In surat at-Taariq, Allah SWT begins the surah by asking
وَالسَّماءِ وَالطّارِقِ وَما أَدراكَ مَا الطّارِقُ
“By the heaven, and by at-Taariq [ the Knocker or Night Approacher] – and what will make you understand what at-Taariq is?” Quran 86:1-2
He (SWT) then answers this question in the next verse:
“It is the piercing star [Venus].” Quran 86:3
Example 2:In surat al-an’aam, Allah SWT says:
لا تُدرِكُهُ الأَبصارُ وَهُوَ يُدرِكُ الأَبصارَ ۖ وَهُوَ اللَّطيفُ الخَبيرُ
“The sights do not apprehend Him, yet He apprehends the sights, and He is the All-attentive, the All-aware.” Quran 6:103
This verse implies that we will not be able to see Allah SWT in this life or the hereafter. But in a different verse, Allah SWT describes the believers in the next life as:
وُجوهٌ يَومَئِذٍ ناضِرَةٌ * إِلىٰ رَبِّها ناظِرَةٌ
“Some faces will be fresh on that day, looking at their Lord” Quran 75:22-23
This verse implies that believers will be able to see Allah SWT in the next life.
In another verse, Allah SWT says about the disbelievers:
كَلّا إِنَّهُم عَن رَبِّهِم يَومَئِذٍ لَمَحجوبونَ
“Verily, they will be veiled from their Lord on that day.” Quran 83:15
This verse implies that the disbelievers will be veiled from the pleasure of seeing Allah SWT on that day. Allah SWT knows best what He intended, so we look for an explanation for the verses in the Quran first and foremost.
2. Tafseer of Quran by the sunnah
There have been further occasions where the Prophet ﷺ added further clarification to the verses of the Quran. Allah SWT gave this task to our Prophet ﷺ which is expressed in the following ayahs:
“….وَأَنزَلنا إِلَيكَ الذِّكرَ لِتُبَيِّنَ لِلنّاسِ ما نُزِّلَ إِلَيهِم
“…We have revealed the Reminder [Quran] to you [O Muhammad] so that you may explain to the people what has been revealed to them…” Quran 16:44
وَما أَنزَلنا عَلَيكَ الكِتابَ إِلّا لِتُبَيِّنَ لَهُمُ الَّذِي اختَلَفوا فيهِ
“We have only revealed the Book to you [O Muhammad] in order that you clarify for them the things about which they differ…” Quran 16:64
The sahaabah (may Allah be pleased with them all) understood the authority of the Prophet ﷺ and always reached out to him to learn and seek clarification regarding verses in which they had doubts as to what the intended meaning was. The pillars of Islam like salah, zakah, sawm, hajj and other aspects of religion were explained in detail by the Prophet ﷺ himself through demonstrations or through his statements. This type of explanation of the Quran is called as Tafseer of the Quran by the sunnah. We will see a few examples of this method of Tafseer below.
Example 1: In the last verse of surat al-Faatihah, Allah SWT says:
صِراطَ الَّذينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِم غَيرِ المَغضوبِ عَلَيهِم وَلَا الضّالّينَ
“The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.” Quran 1:7
The Prophet ﷺ explained that the words “al-maghdoobi ‘alayhim” (those on whom is Allah’s anger) are the Jews, and “ad-dalleen” (those who are astray) are the Christians.
Example 2: In another verse, the Prophet ﷺ explained that the meaning of “al-Kawthar” in the following verse is a river in paradise that Allah SWT has given to him ﷺ.
إِنّا أَعطَيناكَ الكَوثَرَ
“Verily, We have given you al-Kawthar” Quran 108:1
The sunnah is based on guidance from Allah SWT and hence we do not give precedence to the interpretation of any other human being over the Prophet of Allah ﷺ.
3. Tafseer of the Quran by Athaar (the sayings of the sahaabah)
The sahaabah (may Allah be pleased with all of them) only used their own understanding and reasoning for the interpretation of the Quran in situations when they could not find the Tafseer of a passage in the Quran itself or in the sunnah. In such cases, they interpreted the Quran using their knowledge of the context of revelation of those verses and also based on their understanding of the arabic language. One of the greatest commentators of the Quran, Ibn Katheer said: “If we are unable to find a suitable Tafseer in the Quran or in the sunnah, we go to the opinions of the sahaabah. For verily, they knew the Quran better than anyone else due to their knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, their complete and accurate understanding of it, and their righteous deeds.” These type of tafseer of the Quran is known as Tafseer or the Quran by Athaar. We will discuss a couple of examples of these below.
Example 1: In surat an-Nur, Allah SWT says, in verse 31:
وَقُل لِلمُؤمِناتِ يَغضُضنَ مِن أَبصارِهِنَّ وَيَحفَظنَ فُروجَهُنَّ وَلا يُبدينَ زينَتَهُنَّ إِلّا ما ظَهَرَ مِنها
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity and to only reveal from their adornment that which [normally] appears,….” Quran 24:31
When Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) was questioned about this verse, he replied, “It refers to the face and hands”4
Example 2: In surat al-Maida, Allah SWT says in verse 44:
وَمَن لَم يَحكُم بِما أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ فَأُولٰئِكَ هُمُ الكافِرونَ…….
“…And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, is a kaafir.” Quran 5:44
After reciting this verse, Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “It is a form of kufr (disbelief) less than real kufr.”5
4. Tafseer of the Quran by language
Languages evolve with time and words take on new meanings and old meaning become lost. It is further possible that new words enter into the language and some words end up not being used. This is a natural process all languages go through and the same phenomenon occurred with the language of the Quran, arabic. This necessitated new explanation of some of the Quranic words according to their literal and grammatical meanings. Sometimes it is possible that the words have more than one meaning, which could result in difference of opinion among the scholars of Tafseer. These differences could only be solved using any available evidence from the sunnah.
Example: The word “lams” literally means to touch, but figuratively it means sexual intercourse. This created two different opinions amongst the scholars when it came to the explanation of the following verse of surat an-Nisa.
…… أَو لامَستُمُ النِّساءَ فَلَم تَجِدوا ماءً فَتَيَمَّموا صَعيدًا طَيِّبًا……
“….or you have been in contact with [laamastum] women and cannot find water, then make tayammum…” Quran 4:43
Regarding this verse, Imams Ash-shaafi’ee and Maalik held that this word meant the touch of the hand, with some conditions to it. Imam Abu Haneefah concluded based on his ijtihad that it meant sexual intercourse. We know from a hadith that the Prophet’s wives reported that he kissed them before performing salaah, which then meant that touching was not intended by this verse.6
It is very important to remember that Quran is not meant to be interpreted by anyone and without knowledge of the sequence that needs to be adhered. Some deviant sects have interpretations of Quran that clearly go against this established standard sequence of Tafseer. We conclude by noting that that only tafseer that is acceptable by ahl us sunnah wal jama’a is the one which adhreres to the following sequence: Tafseer of the Quran by Quran, then by sunnah, then by the sayings of the sahaabah, then by language and then finally by opinion, as long as the opinion is based on the preceding four methods and does not contradict any of them.7
Website and Book sources:
- Collected by Ibn Abi Shaybah in al-Musannaf, volume 4, page 283, and al-Bayhaqi in as-Sunan al-Kubra.
- Collected by al-Haakim, volume 2, page 313. A similar statement was collected by Ibn Jareer in his Tafseer, volume 4, page 597, no. 12068
- Abu Dawood, volume 1, page 43, no.179
- Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, Usool at-Tafseer, International Islamic Publishing House